Olive Garden is #justsayin

I begin this post not knowing exactly where I will end up. Maybe I kind of suspect, but I don’t know-know.

We are exploring in real time together.

So friend of the blog Taylor S. showed me this tweet last from last night.

The Olive Garden speaks to fans of TV and pasta

From this we learn that:

1. The Olive Garden social media community manager (or one of his/her minions) was watching the show Pretty Little Liars, which is aimed squarely at ‘tweens.’

2. Olive Garden has a Never Ending Pasta product.

3. Around 800 people, at the time of this screen capture, had decided it would be part of their personal brand story to identify with Olive Garden.

4. Olive Garden paid to promote this tweet.

We can infer:

1. The Olive Garden social media community manager thinks that tweens are a legitimate part of the Olive Garden audience, or at least anyone following the Olive Garden feed would not question this.

2. The Olive Garden social media style guide suggests that you include a product in a tweet when possible.

3. The people manning the social media feed over there are really trying to avoid goofy, doofy, blindly promotional posts (“Hate when relationships end? Try our #NeverEndingPasta”) (I just made that up as a for-instance), trying to identify with what’s going on in their (presumed) customers lives, and trying to be more of a person than a company: all good stuff, in theory, at least.

4. Someone over there thought this attempt to identify with tweens was worth paying good money to promote.

We should question:

1. Would this be better without the crass, commercial reference to the product?

2. Do they not come off as huckster-interlopers on the hashtags #PrettyLittleLiars and #justsayin, where people are just trying to have themselves a good ol’ time with their virtual friend set and not suffer the intrusion of bold marketeering?

3. Would this be better if it weren’t promoted—doesn’t that make it seem less chatty and more like a calculated pitch?

4. Is there any non-Olive-Garden-related tweeting on the #NeverEndingPasta hashtag? Just curious. Might be some subculture I don’t know about, I suppose.

5. Would this tweet be better if it didn’t exist?

But then we have to ask:

1. How much money would it cost for them to get an actual ad in front of this very influential group, whose parents might suggest Olive Garden and this tweet all by itself has kept at least about 800 tweens and tween-mindset target audience members from saying, “Ugh, no, not that.” Instead they might start to feel the stirrings of a branded relationship with a restaurant that has similar cultural values to theirs, which in the end is what we want, right? Branding! Is this not a perfect example of using social media to reach difficult target audiences where they’re living and hanging out with their friends?

2. What the hell should these poor social media community managers and their minions talk about? They have to say something, but here we are, saying “Don’t be baldly promotional” but “Remember ROI and promote products naturally when possible” and “Use hashtags to reach audience members who don’t follow you” and “Talk and react like a real human” and “Don’t just arbitrarily happy-talk about weekend plans and goofy stuff.” That’s a real narrow window they have to get their arrow shot through.

3. Can we justify this by whining, “But all the other brands are doing it”? Every restaurant I follow seems to be looking at the popular hashtags and throwing their two cents in, often (or usually) tying it in a crass, unremarkable, ho-hum way to some product of theirs.

Yet in the end:

1. Could they have entered the discussion without dragging their never ending pasta along? That seems kinda self-serving, even as we become numb to the idea that brands are going to happy-talk to us on our social media feeds.

2. Could they please not promote it? That “Promoted by Olive Garden” really does come off as weirdly leveraging their presumed tween-cred with a wider audience and… well, it’s just a little weird. Random, you might say.

3. Are we, as humans in the first world with our #1stWorldProblems, comfortable with the monster of corporate promotion we’ve unleashed through social media? Like all monsters, it’s going to make mistakes and come around marauding at inconvenient times and not fit in and not sound like us humans but still be trying to fit in with us humans but can’t because IT’S A MONSTER? Are we okay with that? Just sayin.

I think I end up here: If this had remained on the #PrettyLittleLiars hashtag and the #justsayin hashtag, it’d be kinda cute and no worse than what other brands eager to talk to tweens are doing. Better than some. It says, “We really are like you, in real time, tween target.” But as soon as they promoted it, it suddenly looked like a Machiavellian attempt to manipulate a wider audience, and the clumsy product promo stopped looking like a cute tie-in and more like a clumsy promo.

On a side note: How far this monster has come…! Can you imagine this discussion even five or six years ago? Darden Restaurants using one of their flagship brands to chitchat about voodoo doll storylines on tween-pop sitcoms? Welcome. You’re living this in real time, everybody.